/ 24 January 2020

Threading 40 years of Zimbabwean writing

Author Tinashe Mushakavahu Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Tinashe Mushakavahu (Delwyn Verasamy)

Avoiding the hackneyed historiography often thrust on works of art emerging from postcolonial Africa, Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats provokes a deeper engagement with the writers of Zimbabwean literature. The book’s approach is to place them side by side in conversation, giving us a textured look at the imperatives — mainly stylistic —underpinning the emergence of the country’s literary scene. To celebrate our special focus on the book, we interviewed the book’s co-editor and partner at the Black Chalk and Co creative agency Tinashe Mushakavanhu about a few aspects of Zimbabwean literature.

You speak of Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats as offering a parallel commentary to that of theorists and critics. What, for you, are some of the problematic ways in which Zimbabwean literature has been theorised ?

Much of the critical readings of Zimbabwean literature are melancholic, fetishising, polemical and focus less on the mechanics of writing but the political circumstances in which the work is written or describing. Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats is informed by a different impulse: it takes the reader behind the scenes to peek at the creative process from a Zimbabwean writer’s perspective. The writers “theorise” themselves and their processes providing an interesting counter narrative to the misreadings of their works usually generated in the academy. 

When [Dambudzo] Marechera throws cups and plates at his hosts when he won the Guardian Prize in 1979, he is reacting to this problem. He goes to the event dressed in a bright red poncho and broad-brimmed black hat. During his speech he notes how few black people are present. He gets drunk and throws plates and cups at walls and chandeliers, partly a response to the way he had been packaged, for a rich white audience whom he accused of celebrating him while his people were suffering and being killed by the Rhodesian forces. The original title of The House of Hunger was At the Head of the Stream which was not considered a sexy title for marketing purposes. To whom?

You say literature no longer occupies a commanding space in Zimbabwean public life, what has come to replace it?

In the early 2000s, there was a deliberate mission to destroy all the infrastructure that promoted critical thinking. This happens when the ministry of information is under the stewardship of Jonathan Moyo, who concentrates power in government-owned media (radio, TV and newspapers) and runs a successful propaganda blitz. He is not interested in just spinning the news but manages a sophisticated system that fundamentally distorts everything, hiding the real issues from public view, and often completely reversing the truth and rewriting history. 

There is also a sustained emphasis on “patriotic history”. Music replaces literature. Writers are seen as enemies of the state and there is a campaign to discredit political writers. Chenjerai Hove becomes the biggest casualty. There is a lot of self censorship. As a result, most contemporary Zimbabwean writers are forced to publish outside the country, both for political and economic reasons. So there is very little publishing activity in the country. Bookshops close, replaced by branded chains that sell self-help literature and manuals about how to get rich quick.

If the glory years were the 1980s and 1990s, how have been the past two decades been formed in terms of the character of literature production and consumption?

Zimbabwe regressed in the past two decades into a dangerous kind of nativism that was promoted through legislation and, sometimes, through violence. For as long as one was not writing “approved” literature, chances of getting published locally were very slim. 

If there was only this two-decade window during which literature held sway in public life, how then does one consider the legacy of the novel in Zimbabwean society?

The contemporary Zimbabwean novel, in its various forms, had its moment in the 1980s. Some antecedents to the Zimbabwean novel existed in the oral traditions and can be traced in the historical works of Ndabaningi Sithole and Stanlake Samkange. For a long time, the subject of the Zimbabwean novel in English was “war” and the “aftermaths of war”. 

The post-2000 novel has been migratory in its subject matter and in the way it is composed. Except for Valerie Tagwira’s The Uncertainty of Hope, Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare and Bryony Rheam’s This September Sun which were all published locally, the Zimbabwean novel in English has found fertile ground abroad. Perhaps, the genre that has suffered the most since 2000 is poetry. There has been very little poetry publishing happening. The problem is also historical. Zimbabwe has never had a thriving literary magazine culture. 

With a very clear selection bias, is Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats in some ways a critical commentary on the  country’s literary canon?

Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats is a celebration of a community, collaboration and collective authorship.